Sentence Fluency—“Painting with Words”

Reading Comprehension
Ongoing Activity
Grades 6–12
Language Arts, History
Small Group, Individual, Sharing Writing, Editing


  • Students of all abilities will increase the complexity of their writing/sentence structure by first modeling Steinbeck (“painting with words”) and then the writing of their classmates.
  • Students will learn to listen to the writing exercises of other group members and recall what images stood out as particularly powerful.
  • Students will be able to write their own powerful sentences (“painting with words”) by describing an original setting.


To increase the level and complexity of students’ writing, students can improve their sentence fluency by emulating the sentence structure of Steinbeck’s The Red Pony and those of their classmates. This can work with all levels of students’ writing abilities. Essentially, students will learn to “paint” with words and create powerful sentences.

Throughout the year, as the students grow more sophisticated and experienced, the assignment can become longer than a few sentences.

The writing exercises will address descriptive and narrative writing styles.

Materials Needed/Preparation

  • Copies of The Red Pony
  • Students’ The Red Pony notebooks

Estimated Time

2-3 class periods


Break the class into small groups and explain to students that they will take turns reading sentences from the first paragraph of “The Gift” (see below). Advise them to listen closely as they will, as a group, be writing several sentences (descriptive and narrative) and imitating the sentence structure of Steinbeck.

At daybreak Billy Buck emerged from the bunkhouse and stood for a moment on the porch looking up at the sky. He was a broad, bandy-legged little man with a walrus mustache, with square hands, puffed and muscled on the palms. His eyes were a contemplative, watery gray and the hair which protruded from under his Stetson hat was spiky and weathered. Billy was still stuffing his shirt into his blue jeans as he stood on the porch. He unbuckled his belt and tightened it again. The belt showed, by the worn shiny places opposite each hole, the gradual increase of Billy’s middle over a period of years. When he had seen to the weather, Billy cleared each nostril by holding its mate closed with his forefinger and blowing fiercely. Then he walked down to the barn, rubbing his hands together. He curried and brushed two saddle horses in the stalls, talking quietly to them all the time; and he had hardly finished when the iron triangle started ringing at the ranch house. Billy stuck the brush and currycomb together and laid them on the rail, and went up to breakfast. His actions had been so deliberate and yet so wasteless of time that he came to the house while Mrs. Tiflin was still ringing the triangle. She nodded her gray head to him and withdrew into the kitchen. Billy Buck sat down on the steps, because he was a cow-hand, and it wouldn’t be fitting that he should go first into the dining-room. He heard Mr. Tiflin in the house, stamping his feet into his boots. (1-2)
  • After student groups have read the opening paragraph of The Red Pony, have them discuss which sentences were particularly powerful and were truly an example of “painting with words.”
  • In their groups, students will rewrite/impersonate several (or all) of Steinbeck’s sentences emulating his sentence structure and imagery. Students in the group will be responsible for dividing the work to be done. Tell students that this is a fun activity and no one should feel intimidated. All students should work together. Consider using a pair-share strategy to prepare students.
  • Students will then take turns reading out loud their emulation of Steinbeck’s opening paragraph and discuss which images were powerful. This is a non-judgmental activity, and there are no “wrong” responses. Remember to set aside time to rehearse as this will improve student readings and make them more comfortable reading aloud in front of the class.
  • While still remaining in their groups, students will individually write several sentences describing a setting near their home (a park, shopping mall, a street, a school playground, and so on). As an alternative, students may describe the classroom/something in it. Time permitting, students may go outside for this exercise. Keep in mind the “painting with words” sentence structure model.
  • Students will then share their writing with each other by reading out loud to the group. Students must listen carefully and may take notes.
  • The other group members will then emulate/impersonate the writing/sentence structure of each member in the group.
  • All group members will read out loud their emulations of other group members.
  • Time permitting, each group may rotate to other groups and share their writing.
  • Time permitting, individual students may read their “Painting with Words” exercises for the entire class.

Post Activity/Takeaways/Follow-up

Post Activity

  • Have students finalize their own “Painting with Words” exercises and post them on the classroom walls for all to see, read, and enjoy.
  • For the artistically inclined, students may add illustrations to their “Painting with Words” exercises.
  • From Words to Pictures


  • The main purpose of this activity is to improve student writing, particularly creative, descriptive writing.


  • Teachers can have students write an evaluation of the project and what they have learned.


  • During the exercise, teachers will monitor the process, making sure everyone is on task and is participating. Participation grades can be issued daily.
  • A final group/individual grade may be issued after the exercise.
  • A test on “Painting with Words” is an option. The test could include:
  • ~Giving students a passage from The Red Pony and having them rewrite it by emulating Steinbeck’s style.
  • ~Having students write their own passage using the “Painting with Words” model.

Common Core State Standards Met

  • Reading Standards for Literature 6-12
  • ~Key Ideas and Details: 1, 2, 3
  • ~Craft and Structure: 4, 5, 6
  • ~Integration of Knowledge and Ideas: 9
  • ~Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity: 10
  • Writing Standards 6-12
  • ~Text Types and Purposes: 1, 3
  • ~Production and Distribution of Writing: 4, 5
  • ~Research to Build and Present Knowledge: 9
  • ~Range of Writing: 10
  • Speaking and Listening Standards 6-12
  • ~Comprehension and Collaboration: 1
  • Language Standards 6-12
  • ~Conventions of Standard English: 1, 2
  • ~Knowledge of Language: 3
  • ~Vocabulary Acquisition and Use: 4, 5, 6
  • Reading Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies 6-12
  • ~Key Ideas and Details: 2, 3
  • ~Craft and Structure: 4, 5
  • Writing Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects 6-12
  • ~Production and Distribution of Writing: 4, 5
  • ~Range of Writing: 10

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